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New CFDA report details inequity in fashion industry

By Jackie Mallon

8 Feb 2021

To coincide with Black History Month the CFDA released The State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fashion Report, a 36-page body of research begun in 2018 in partnership with PVH Corp. It outlines the myriad injustices in the fashion industry and seeks to elevate the voices of its underrepresented. Allyship and intersectionality are also addressed in the document, part of a sustained mission by the council to create tangible and measurable change in the industry it oversees.

“We are grateful for PVH’s continued partnership with the CFDA, which allows us to address important needs within American fashion,” said Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA.

Areas of opportunity for diversity efforts

The research is a result of a McKinsey & Company survey conducted during fall 2020 involving over 1,000 working industry professionals across 41 companies, 20 stakeholder interviews, and 3 focus groups with students and emerging designers. The research indicates that some advancements have been made, but there is still much to do. 59 percent of respondents report their company has taken action in response to racial injustice, but 16 percent do not believe it will lead to lasting change and 40 percent are unsure if it will. From the data six key areas of opportunity are identified: awareness, access, promotion, advocacy, compensation and belonging. In the words of the report’s opening statement of intent: Achieving equity and full parity will take time and require an investment from all of us on what has been, and will continue to be, a collective effort. Each step forward puts us closer to our shared goal.

Just under a quarter of employees at large companies say they don’t believe that the best opportunities go to the most deserving compared to 15 percent of employees at small companies. Among employees of color, 23 percent question the meritocracy of opportunity compared to 16 percent of white employees.

Lack of representation in leadership and low rate of promotion for non-white employees

The report refers to Mc Kinsey data from 2019 which revealed that employees of color only comprise 16 percent of C-suite roles and 15 percent of board seats, despite comprising 32 percent of entry-level positions. In contrast, white men comprise more than half (54 percent) of C-suite roles and the majority of board seats (72 percent), despite only comprising 26 percent of entry-level positions. In a sample of ten leading US fashion and apparel companies only three employees of color at the C-suite level were chief diversity officers, usually part of the human resources departments of their organization.

Referrals disproportionately benefit white employees. Only 11 percent of Black employees found a job in fashion through friends or family members versus 26 percent of total respondents. POC respondents said that their race/ethnicity has had a negative impact on receiving raises and promotions (26 percent employees of color vs. 1 percent white respondents), particularly Black (40%) and Asian (27%) respondents. Latinx employees report the lowest rates of having someone frequently advocate for them (28 percent vs. 44 percent white employees).

A lack of diversity in management positions, less access to sponsorship for Black talent and less likelihood that Black candidates will be promoted into managerial roles are also reported. One respondent said, “It’s hard for people of color to reach for opportunities they don’t even know about.”

Black students view fashion career as unreachable or unwelcoming

The lack of awareness within certain communities of the career possibilities within the fashion industry is a problem, and fashion schools must play a part as a key feeder into the pipeline. However, an analysis of students at six of the top U.S. fashion schools reveals missed opportunities in Black representation and financial barriers to attendance. Low-paying or unpaid internships, par for the course for fashion graduates, exclude candidates who find themselves forced to choose a job paying 15 dollars an hour over moving to NYC and not earning for an indefinite period. Black students surveyed expressed skepticism of lasting change despite the current conversations, sharing the opinion that Black culture is trending now but will pass, while their concerns about pursuing a career in the fashion industry will remain.

While systemic racism exists across all industries, the CFDA report explores the unique biases in the workplace dynamics of the fashion industry. The importance of “taste,” of fitting into an “aesthetic” can negatively impact the advancement of POC, as wells as a reliance on connections and networks which exclude potential talent pools, and the issue of cultural appropriation. Additionally Black employees report feeling less equipped for their first job than white people, with 38 percent feeling “not at all equipped.”

Perhaps the most disturbing finding is that POC simply do not feel they belong in the fashion industry, with Black respondents pointing to an environment of non-inclusive behavior. 23 percent have observed biased behavior, most commonly around someone’s race or physical appearance and two in three Black employees reported being the only POC in the room, which for 63 percent of them led to feelings of pressure to perform, and 55 percent feeling that they were expected to speak for everyone who looks like them. “I’ve had a white peer say to me that I don’t have to worry about layoffs because [the company] can’t let go of the Black person, or they verbalize that they think I got a promotion because I’m Black,” said one Black fashion executive at a luxury brand.

Despite our industry’s appearance of inclusivity towards the LGBTQ+ community, micro aggressions towards LGBTQ+ employees abound, leaving 18 percent of those respondents unwilling to recommend our industry to others who identify like them.

The report’s findings are sobering but not surprising. The fashion industry must confront its historic failings and get to work connecting, nurturing and supporting its Black and Brown creatives, eliminating ableism and ageism, remolding an out-of-touch workplace into a contemporary welcoming environment. To this end the report concludes with a toolkit to drive holistic change which can emerge through the collective efforts and everyday actions of individuals, companies, educational establishments, and funding associations. In the words of Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA, “With the study’s findings and toolkit, we look to industry stakeholders to support us in creating an industry that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.”

Image from CFDA.com

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry